On Tuesday night, as they do every game day, Ryan Howard Phillies jerseys dotted the concourse and grandstands of FirstEnergy Stadium before the Reading Fightin Phils game.
But this time, for the first time in 14 years, there was a Ryan Howard on the field to cheer for — even if he wasn't launching bomb after bomb like he did here in days past.
Howard returned to several standing ovations from a packed house, all on hand to celebrate his induction into the Baseballtown Hall of Fame as the Class of 2018's lone member. There weren't 36,935 present like at his Citizen's Bank Park swan song two years ago — FirstEnergy can't quite hold that — but the the 9,000-some helped Howard reminisce about fond memories from his 2004 romp through double A.
"In my entire playing career, from being a kid all the way through the major leagues … there was only a few times where I felt the way I felt [in Reading]," said Howard, 38. "One time was my sophomore year in college, the second time was here in Reading, and then the third time was obviously 2006 in the big leagues."
In 102 games at Reading that season, before he was called up to triple A at the end of July, Howard batted .297 and led the Eastern League with 37 home runs and 102 RBIs.
Those numbers earned him the league's rookie of the year and MVP awards — accolades forgotten within years once Howard was winning their equivalents at the major-league level, but special at the time.
"It was funny hearing from the other guys on the other teams, 'Ryan, what are you still doing here, bro?'" he said. "And I was like, 'I don't make those decisions, man.'"
It was in Reading where Howard first adopted his iconic outstretched bat pose before each pitch. It was in Reading where Howard put nagging trade rumors behind him and cemented his status as an elite prospect. It was in Reading where Howard first showed the kind of show-stopping power that later made him a nationwide star — his 23 homers in 130 games for Clearwater in 2003 were nice, but not quite at 2004 levels.
In the legacy of a player who ultimately won the National League MVP, two-thirds of a season in double A will never compose anything but an afterthought. For the man himself, however, Reading was an important developmental step along the way — a memory he reflected on in a pregame speech Tuesday while accompanied by his wife and two daughters.
And as for what he learned from that long-lost summer? Well, that answer was less surprising.